TRAVERSE CITY — The last time Darryl Nelson saw Sterling Sokolski he wasn’t sure she would live, he wasn’t sure he had done the right thing.
She had suffered terrible injuries in a car wreck, ones worse than any the experience seen before. He held her tiny body, limp and lifeless as the girl lost her grasp on life.
“Sterling,” he said over and over, as if trying to call her back.
Hers is a name that sticks with him 13 years later.
Nelson shut the rear door on the ambulance that carried the 3-year-old girl to the hospital that cold January day in 2000 and he wondered if he would ever see her again.
Tuesday, Nelson, 51, officially met Sokolski for the first time.
Now 17, Sokolski embraced Nelson like she would a long-lost family member. The Kalkaska High School junior always knew Nelson only as “the guy who saved my life.”
Her mother, Sonya Reimer, carried Nelson’s business card in her purse for years, but she didn’t muster the courage to dial his number until recently.
She wouldn’t know the guy if she bumped into him along the street, yet, she owes one of the most important parts of her life to him — her 17-year-old daughter.
Reimer kept it for the better part of the past 13 years, looking at it from time to time and contemplating dialing Nelson’s number.
“I just put it off and put it off and put it off,” she said. “I just never got the nerve to call him. I just realized there is nothing I can do that can thank him.”
Reimer had driven past the site of the wreck — the intersection of Bunker Hill Road and U.S. 31 — hundreds of times. She would point to the store Nelson managed when the wreck happened and would tell Sokolski about the man who saved her life.
“She talked about him like he was a hero,” Sokolski said. “I really wish we met up with him earlier.”
The pair stopped in a couple of times to see Nelson at the store, but missed him.
Nelson recounted the scene of the wreck to the women Tuesday night while the trio reunited in a restaurant along U.S. 31 not far from where he first encountered them more than a decade ago.
Nelson had walked outside that day a couple of times to see what was going on after two cars crashed. There were three people thrown from the car Reimer and her daughter were riding in, but everybody seemed to be getting help, he said.
What nobody knew was that Sokolski still was inside the car, strapped in her car seat, not breathing.
“The third time, I felt pushed to go out there,” Nelson said. “I felt compelled to go out there almost like I was arguing with someone.
“All three of the occupants had been thrown from the vehicle. I checked each one and they were injured but stable. Then for some reason I went and checked the vehicle. Right at the point of impact, there was this girl in a car seat.”
She was blue, not breathing and had severe head trauma.
The impact of the crash was so intense, it shattered the car seat Sokolski was sitting in.
Nelson tipped her head back to see that she had cuts covering her face, many of her teeth were broken and one of her eyes was severely injured.
It is an image that Nelson still sees from time to time when he closes his eyes.
“I was focused on making sure she didn’t die,” he said. “She was, I guess, gone. You never get rid of that image in your head. There’s images you never forget. I can close my eyes and see it like a photograph.”
Then it happened.
As he cleared broken teeth and blood from the girl’s mouth, Nelson saw an air bubble. He was using basic CPR skills he learned as a young boy scout. As he continued to care for her, she began to breathe. The breaths were faint, but she was alive.
Nelson called another man to the side of the car to tell him to get paramedics. But when the man saw the girl covered in blood and cuts, he turned and left.
A short time later, Nelson managed to yell for help. He eventually got the attention of two paramedics who rushed to his side the help stabilize the girl.
“As the ambulance drove away, I thought ‘Oh, God, what did I do?’” he said. “I thought it might have just been too long.”
Sokolski was taken to DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids for treatment. She clung to life and eventually was transferred to a rehabilitation facility, Reimer said.
Nelson tried to keep track of how she was doing but lost touch. Over time, he replayed the scene in his head from time to time.
His daughter was about the same age and rode to and from day care in the same car seat.
Then, when Sokolski was about six, her grandmother walked into the store and asked to speak with Nelson.
He met the woman near his office door. Sobbing, she handed him a picture of a six-year-old girl and a note.
It was a simple thank you.
“I knew she was out there,” he said. “That was really good for me just to know she was out there, doing OK.”
Since then, Nelson hadn’t seen or heard from Sokolski or Reimer. He imagined how she might have grown. Meanwhile he taught his children the importance of CPR and first aid.
During that time Sokolski underwent about a dozen surgeries, but had overcome her injuries to become as normal as any teenager.
There was a time when she was self-conscious about her scars. And she was bullied a few times, but Sokolski survived to thrive.
“I was self-conscious, but I’m not anymore,” she said. “This is who I am.”
She the person Nelson hoped he would one day meet after watching that ambulance drive away.
“Being the father of a teenage daughter, I can’t imagine having all that snuffed out,” he said. “It’s like a piece of me went with her.”